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Aug 27 2009

The infantilization of religious faith

Once in a while I get private emails from readers of this blog who disagree with my atheistic stance. Recently I got one that said in its entirety:

Dear Sir, from your comments about the religious beliefs of scientists, I gather that you contend that, for the scientist, the greater the learning, the lesser the belief in God; and, conversely, the greater the belief in God, the lesser the knowledge of science. It never ceases to fascinate me, the adoring eyes of a child for the elderly, yet the grown up has little need for them, and, so, they confine them to a home and out of their way. By far, what the child has is greater than what the grown up has. Love never enters the equations of scientists, nor does faith; consequently, the eternal God is not in view of scientists, but only His temporal creation. Archeology has uncovered less than 1% of all the treasures of our past (just scratched the surface), yet, for many decades, archeologists, in their haughtiness, have spoken with authority against the Bible, as bulls from the chair. Many scientists today, and of the past, with their silver surfboard in hand, have yet to feel a wave flow by their ankles, as they have barely just stepped into the ocean. What the eye cannot see, and the ear cannot hear, and the mind cannot understand, the spirit (even of a child) can fathom.

This letter, in somewhat flowery language, illustrates some of the contradictory beliefs that religious people commonly express without them even realizing it.

For example, it says that a child’s understanding of the world is superior to that of the adult. It says that in order to perceive god, we need to be like children in our ignorance, and listen to the voices in our head, rather than the concrete senses of sight and sound. In other words, deeper knowledge and greater learning undermine faith. I actually agree with the last sentence but view it as a good thing.

It amazes me that people think that ignorance is a good thing. When people sing the praises of childlike faith, I don’t think they quite realize how insulting that is to their religion. It is saying that faith in god is on a par with faith in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, things that only a child would believe in. I agree with that last sentence too but am surprised that religious people advocate it as a virtue.

But the letter writer then promptly contradicts that position by implying that scientists know so little now and presumably that when we get to know more, evidence for god will emerge. So in order to perceive god should we be like children unburdened by knowledge or should we seek more knowledge? Religious people want to have it both ways, on the one hand saying that we see god only by faith and not by knowledge, and on the other hand that we are ignorant now and that more knowledge will provide the necessary evidence for what now must be accepted only on faith. What is interesting is that this contradiction never strikes them, providing another illustration of how religion undermines the ability to think rationally.

The contradictions go even deeper. After all, if god created us then he also created our unusually large brains and gave us the power to think and reason and use logic. As Hamlet says (Act II, Scene II), “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!” If so, then why would god not expect us to use the abilities he/she supposedly gave us to understand everything about the world, including religious beliefs? Why would he/she give us this extraordinary intellectual ability and then make it into a liability?

In the end, what religions want you to do simply boils down to this prescription: “You must believe in god. Anything that helps you believe is good. Anything that undermines belief is bad. Ignore any contradictions. Use your brain for everything except examining your religious beliefs to see if they make any sense.”

In the great title song from the film O Lucky Man, singer Alan Price describes the qualities that a lucky man possesses. One of them is not being tempted by promises of heaven or made fearful by threats of hell but he also adds that, “If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains, you are a lucky man.”

This phenomenon of religious people sacrificing knowledge and reasoning abilities in order to preserve beliefs for which there is no credible evidence whatsoever is sad, really. For religious people, knowledge is indeed like heavy chains, holding them back and burdening them because it contradicts their myths. Atheists, on the other hand, not being bound by dogma and religious texts, delight in discovering pearls of knowledge.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus and the dinosaurs

Many Christians are anxiously waiting for the promised second coming of Jesus when they will get their reward for being faithful believers. But what they don’t realize is that the first coming of Jesus was not at the time described in the Gospels in the Bible but actually occurred much earlier, during the dinosaur age. Eddie Izzard recovers this lost history.

So the second coming of Jesus has already occurred. Sorry, Christians, the show is over, there is nothing more to wait for.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Jared

    I like your analysis of the letter, Mano. I remember that when I was still religious I found some elements of the kind of reasoning in the letter evocative, but now the contradictions are so glaring.

    I like this passage from today’s post: “In the end, what religions want you to do simply boils down to this prescription: ‘You must believe in god. Anything that helps you believe is good. Anything that undermines belief is bad. Ignore any contradictions. Use your brain for everything except examining your religious beliefs to see if they make any sense.’”

    I would only add the word “succesful” before “religions” in that first sentence. After all, history has its share of various factions, cults, orders, etc. that do value knowledge. They just don’t tend stick around very long as a coherent religious group because of the various reasons you discussed. This explains why the really successful ones makes such a point of fostering “childlike faith”. A meme theorist might suggest that such a trait is highly advantageous for religious ideas to foster.

    I also like how the letter writer falsely implies (knowingly?) that the current archaeological picture of biblical historicity is based on the lack of corroborating evidence, rather than large amounts of refuting evidence. Accepting the opposite would make his point meaningless. This is a perfect example of where knowledge can “hang like a chain” for a believer…

    Jared

  2. 2
    articulett

    I agree entirely with your analysis, Mano.

    What is interesting is that the person felt compelled to write you such a letter. Why would someone write such a letter unless they were trying to convince THEMSELVES that their faith gives them something that the atheist can’t have–when I have deep understanding of a subject, such as evolution, I don’t go around telling others what they lack by not having this glorious knowledge I have. Of course, when something is real, it stays real whether you believe in it or not.

    I doubt children look at the elderly more adoringly, on average, than adults. Moreover, they don’t have the capacity to put old people in homes and often rely on them for their own care. It’s a silly “just so” pablum story of the type that theists seem to trot out regularly as if it were fact. Besides, if adults are looking at old people and the kiddies less favorably maybe it’s because adults are busy doing the dirty work of changing the diapers and taking care of those unable to care for themselves. That’s a much greater expression of love, isn’t it?

    Theists often play this mind game at assorted skeptic sights all over the web. I think they are really peeved because the atheist dares to disbelieve in their god with the same fervor that the theist rejects Scientology, rain dancing, voo-doo, etc. And for the SAME GOOD REASONS.

    I think these sort of letters help people shore up sagging faith and put down those who have the “audacity” to find ALL faiths as mythical as Greek myths.

  3. 3
    Raymond Foulkes

    This reminds me of the story of Adam and Eve.

    They were condemed for eating from the tree of knowledge weren’t they?

    So god made them in his own image, gave them a big brain, capable of rational thought, planted a tree of knowledge in their garden, forbade them to eat from it and punished them when they did! – what a sadist!

    Doesn’t this story tell the religeous faithfull that the people who created their religion all those years ago, did not want the ordinary folk from delving too deeply in terms of finding out the truth, lest the all powerful all mighty be exposed for what he really is, like the wizard of Oz?

    The ignorant can keep kept in their place and their fear can be used to perpetuate their ignorance, I can understand how this can work with a ruling class and uneducated peasants who’s toil ultimately went to feed their ruling masters, but the acceptance of this by modern educated people, is something that I cannot fathom.

    My best guess is that is stems from indoctrination as children (yet I too was indoctrinated by church, sunday school and RI but it didn’t work) or is it still just that ‘fear’. The fear of ‘what if god really exists? – so I had better ‘believe’ – just in case.

    Like articulett says, these people are trying to shore up their sagging faith. They probabley have so much vested in their faith that to declare that they are free of it would cost them so much in terms of their immediate society and circle of friends.

    One day, one of them might just be brave enough to point out that the emperor really does not have any clothes!

    I would just like to add one thing for anyone who declares their belief on the ‘just in case god exists basis’ – Hey you guys! what if you chose the wrong god? – won’t the real one be even MORE furious!

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